From Stromness to Somerset

It’s been an exceptionally busy month for Nordic Viola which has seen me travel the length of the UK, with Nordic Viola’s most southerly concerts to date!

At the very end of September I renewed my partnership with Icelandic pianist, Arnhildur Valgarđsdóttir, with a programme of music entitled “A Journey Around the North Atlantic” for the Orkney Norway Friendship Association. At the heart of the programme were the two sonatas we performed in Seyđisfjörđur in the summer; Jón Thorarinsson’s Sonata and Adrian Vernon Fish’s Greenland-inspired Qaanaaq. We also included music closely connected to the heritage of Iceland and Orkney; Gemma McGregor’s Raven Banner and Heyr Himna Smiđur (“Hear, smith of the heavens”) a famous hymn tune by þorkell Sigurbjörnsson to words by Kolbeinn Tumason The programme opened with a March by Orkney resident Tom Deyell, which he wrote for the Shetland Folk Society Tune Competition.

We had a fabulous audience, which included travellers from Norway and Canada and we very much enjoyed swapping stories whilst being entertained by the fabulous young musicians from the Stromness Strathspey and Reel Society.

Arnhildur introduced us to some tales from the Sagas. What we forgot to talk about was her ancestral links to Orkney. She can trace her family line back to Rognvald Eysteinsson, also an ancestor of St. Magnus. Arnhildur’s family line traces back to Icelandic chieftain Hrollaug before branching off at Thordis (see below). Arnhildur was excited to visit Orkney and we enjoyed an afternoon exploring history in St. Magnus’ Cathedral, Kirkwall.

We had some true Orcadian weather (read 70mph gusts and lashing rain!) so I spent the morning of the concert in Stromness Museum, learning more about Orkney’s exploration and trading in the Arctic – sure that will find its way into a project someday.

Northern Stories Festival- Lyth Arts

I’ve been following the great work done by Charlotte Mountford at Lyth Arts in Caithness for sometime now, so when the opportunity came to take Sagas and Seascapes to the Northern Stories Festival, which was exploring Caithness’ Norse heritage, I absolutely jumped at the chance.

On this occasion I was presenting a screening of the Sagas and Seascapes film as per the original version for Orkney International Science Festival in 2021, but also including live performances of William Heinesen’s Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune, Kári Bæk’s Wogen and The Drummer, the Scottish traditional tune that inspired the Danish Dromer. I also took Orla’s paintings with me.

Lyth Arts is a totally rejuvenating place for an artist to stay – at least for one who needs space around them! It is set in the flatlands of Caithness between Wick and Thurso, backing onto the peatlands of the Flow Country. Set up originally by local artist William Wilson, it has space for exhibitions and workshops as well as a small theatre. Artists are accommodated in the adjacent house and it’s a great place to meet and share ideas.

I was sharing with accordionist Neil Sutcliffe (coincidentally a friend of Orla’s) and Danish Storyteller Svend-Erik Engh as well as Svend’s partner, Alice, also a storyteller. I attended their workshop in the morning where I learned lots about how to tell a story engagingly before I joined the musicians in improvising along to the words.

Back in Thurso I had a couple of days to absorb myself in the landscapes that constantly inspire my music. I’m more used to seeing the Caithness coast from the Orkney boat but I think a new love affair has begun. The perilous coastline is riddled with hidden geos (rocky inlets), caves and blowholes. I also got to see an upwards waterfall (blown upwards by the wind)! You need your wits about you exploring those cliffs but the yield is a wealth of exciting colours, shapes and sounds. This was all topped off by the sight of a full moon reflecting on the water across Thurso Bay after an earlier golden sunset.

More museum time was had at the North Coast Visitor Centre. The expected displays on Norse and Pictish culture were there, but also absorbing panels on the ecology of the Flow Country. Every time I travel through that area it draws me in with its isolated peaks, saturated ground that now and again breaks out into a small lochan. On the surface of it, it looks barren, but it’s teeming with birdlife and, at ground level, the delicate sphagnum mosses are full of colour with their intricate little leaves. Autumn is one of the most beautiful times to see it with the russet-red dying bracken set against gunmetal skies, laden with heavy downpours.

Somerset

Into late October and a change of pianist on the stool as I joined Kevin Duggan for three concerts down in the south-west of England. We started with two concerts in Glastonbury and Midsomer Norton performing much of the programme I’d played with Arnhildur, but adding in Rebecca Clarke’s characterful and varied Shorter Pieces and a new piece by Kevin based on Icelandic hymn tune, Almáttigur Guð.

Kevin is a native of Somerset and proved a wonderful guide, taking us out into the Mendips and introducing us to some of the prehistoric archaeological sites of Wiltshire. There is a connection to Orkney here, as it has been mooted that the ancient Orcadians may have travelled south and passed on their architectural skills gleaned from building edifices such as the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae to those constructing the likes of Stonehenge and West Kennet Longbarrow. In the dark warmth out of a hefty downpour, it felt right to get the viola out for a quick improvisation to these ancient peoples.

Dunsden, Reading

Our final performance was at Dunsden Church  near Reading at the behest of composer Adrian Vernon Fish, who wrote Qaanaaq.

Being with people who know, love and have connections in Greenland is always a special experience for me as there are not so many people in this country that I can talk to and who I know have experienced what it is to spend time there living and working with Greenlanders. I felt a real responsibility to communicate the emotions and tell the stories that Adrian crafted so well in his Qaanaaq Sonata: the intense outpouring of the Aria and the helter-skelter chaos of the dogsled ride, Qimmusseq before the final Piseq or drum dance, which for me exemplifies the slower pace of life and patience of Greenlanders.

Before Qaanaaq and as a tribute both to Greenland and to Adrian who shares a love of that country with me, I played a short improvisation on an East Greenland Entertaining Song.

It was a wonderful, moving occasion and a concert that’ll stay in my mind for a long time.

Performances of Sagas and Seascapes in Edinburgh

And so our run of Sagas and Seascapes at the Scottish Storytelling Centre as part of the Made In Scotland Showcase has come to an end and what a great run of performances we had! Three nights of practically full houses, each with their own energy. All were made to feel very welcome and we had Audio Description and captions available at our relaxed performance, which for me was the show with the most intimate vibe and connection with the audience.

It was amazing to see Craig Sinclair’s beautiful film in high definition on the big screen and people loved watching Orla Stevens creating the beautiful paintings which we had on show in the courtyard.

Click here to find out what others said about our performances.

Northern Edgelands by Orla Stevens

Orla’s trip to Orkney to film with Nordic Viola was just the start of her relationship with Orkney and sparked a whole series of works, now on show at the Macrobert Arts Centre at Stirling University until 25th September. It’s a beautiful show in a beautiful space and comes highly recommended. You can also view our Sagas and Seascapes film there.

Sagas and Seascapes goes to Caithness

Full details are yet to be released, but the film version of Sagas and Seascapes will be going to Caithness very soon, accompanied by Orla’s beautiful paintings. I will play a couple of pieces live and tell the stories behind our work.

I’m particularly excited to take this work to Caithness as it is, of course, part of our central character Aud’s story. It was in Caithness that her son, Thorstein was killed by the Scots and from where she set sail to Orkney en route to West Iceland. I’ll update you with performance details when they’re announced. In the meantime, enjoy “Aud” by Linda Buckley with art by Orla Stevens and film by Craig Sinclair.

Faroese Music at Edinburgh Festival Fringe

A Faroese double-header for you tonight. First of all, Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum (The Tale of the Sealwoman in 10 pictures) by young Faroese composer, Eli Tausen á Lava. This legend is shared all away around the western seaboard from the Celtic nations right the way to the Faroes and Iceland, with each country having its own distinctive twists to the tale.

Our artist Orla Stevens has also been creating new art for Eli’s music, which will be unveiled for the first time in Edinburgh.

Our second piece is by Kári Bæk, a more established name on the Faroese scene and a composer who we very much enjoyed working with as a trio in the Faroes back in 2018. Wogen was written originally for solo cello, but I loved it so much I asked Kári if I could make a transcription for viola. You can also hear a small excerpt in this video from Kári’s Vár Trio.

We’re looking forward to welcoming some of you to Edinburgh in 10 days or so. If you live too far away, don’t forget that there is also an online screening of Sagas and Seascapes followed by a zoom Q and A with composers Eli Tausen á Lava, Gemma McGregor and Lillie Harris as well as artist Orla Stevens and I. More info and a link to buy tickets over on sagasandseascapes.com/events

Elsewhen by Lillie Harris

I first came across “Elsewhen” by Lillie Harris when she wrote it for the St. Magnus Composers’ course in 2017 and I knew straight away that I wanted to programme it with Nordic Viola. It is so evocative of the ancient monuments, and in particular of the Stones of Stenness, with its sense of mystery and eeriness. There’s something quite unsettling about the music or, as Orkney Arts Society put it, “There is edge here – edges, edginess, margins and menace under the surface.”

I’ll leave you with Lillie now to explain a little bit more about the piece, working alongside Orla Stevens on the art and, in general, about her collaboration with Nordic Viola.

Ancient sites are intriguing: they offer us amazement at the sheer age of artefacts, many mysteries of why things were that way, and the sense of a delicate thread connecting us now, to those people then. Our interactions with these relics helps us build an image of our past, but there is only so much we can learn from what remains – the rest is lost to time.

​In ‘Elsewhen’ I have sought to capture the strangeness, wonder, and melancholy of objects and sites that exist out of time: they retain traces and memories of the past, but have outlived those for whom they were built, and have been left behind.

Written for the St Magnus Composers Course 2017

www.lillieharris.com

Carry His Relics by Gemma McGregor

In the countdown to Sagas and Seascapes at the Fringe, each day this week I’m going to give you a short video introduction to each of the pieces in the programme.

First up is “Carry His Relics” by Gemma McGregor.

‘Carry His Relics’ describes the journey mentioned at the end of the Orkneyinga Saga when the followers of St Magnus carried his remains from Christkirk, Birsay along the coast to the capital town of Kirkjuvagr. 

​St Magnus is the patron saint of Orkney. He was murdered on 16th April, 1117. Twenty years after Magnus’ death, a farmer called Gunni, from the Orkney island of Westray, reported that Magnus had appeared to him in a dream and instructed him to tell Bishop William that he wanted his relics moved. Gunni reported his dream and permission was granted. 

​After the procession along the coast of Orkney, Magnus’ remains were interred at St Olaf’s Kirk, although they were later moved to St Magnus Cathedral. Many miracles had been reported by those who had prayed to St Magnus for help. 

​The joyful processional melodies make reference to both Magnus’ Viking culture and his Christian beliefs by using traditional Orcadian and Norwegian style music and by quoting from 12th century plainchants that may have been sung by the followers of Magnus.

The fifty-five mile long route taken by the pilgrims subsequently became a devotional walk but fell out of use centuries ago. The St Magnus Way was cleared and reopened in 2017 to mark the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Magnus. 

www.gemmamcgregor.com

Tickets: https://www.sagasandseascapes.com/events

Countdown to Sagas and Seascapes in Edinburgh!

So here we are, just over 2 weeks to our performance of Sagas and Seascapes as part of Made in Scotland at The Scottish Storytelling Centre at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Performances are 15th-17th August at 20:30 and tickets are available now here. If you live too far away to travel to Edinburgh, then you can join in, too, with an online screening on 18th August at 19:00 followed by a live Q and A with me, Orla and three of the composers, Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris and Eli Tausen á Lava. It’s free but ticketed, with tickets available here.

This will be our biggest performance of this programme to date. The music will be performed live with Craig Sinclair‘s beautiful film for the first time. The film includes Orla Steven’s specially commissioned artwork, spectacular film of Orkney and beyond and interviews with Orla and composers Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris, Eli Tausen á Lava and Linda Buckley. This year there is new film footage with Eli’s Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum (The Tale of the Sealwoman in 10 pictures).

To find out more about what makes our performance so special, watch this video from Ed McKeon of Third Ear Music:

I know some of you particularly enjoy news of Nordic Viola’s travels in the Far North. I have plenty of news and reflections from my recent trip to Iceland and, in between all the Edinburgh planning, I’ll try to give you a longer read and some scenery, too!

We’re really looking forward to seeing you in Edinburgh. Bring along your stories of the Far North – we love hearing other people’s tales of the Far North, and some of them might even find their way into a future performance!

If you’re making a holiday out of your trip to Edinburgh this summer and can make it over to Stirling, or indeed you live in our area, then Orla Stevens also has a solo exhibition of her Orkney-inspired work at the MacRobert Arts Centre at Stirling University. It runs from 20th August for around a month.

Finally, don’t forget to have a quick look at our Sagas and Seascapes website which has loads of interesting features from our composers and artists. I’ve really enjoyed reading their perspectives on our work together.

Return to Orkney and a Recital in Iceland

Last week I travelled up to Orkney – not with Nordic Viola this time, but with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for the St. Magnus Festival. Nevertheless, with our performance of Sagas and Seascapes at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of the Made In Scotland Showcase just 2 months away, returning to Orkney a year after we filmed there was an emotional experience.

Passing the Old Man of Hoy which features in our film of Linda Buckley’s Aud and then rounding the corner of Hoy and seeing the mountains exactly as captured in Orla Steven’s painting to Elsewhen by Lillie Harris.

On Sunday I had time to travel to Rousay, a new island for me. The weather was wild, with gale force winds. I found myself wondering how Aud would have experienced this coastline back in the 9th century, what her emotions were as she passed the imposing cliffs on her way to a new life in Iceland.

Cycling on the south side of Rousay, we looked across Eynhallow sound towards the Broch of Gurness where Gemma McGregor reflected on the journey of St. Magnus to his death in Egilsay. The tidal races through the sound are famously fast, and we were treated to a view of them in full flow. Travelling back to Tingwall on the mainland, I saw St. Magnus’ Chruch on Egilsay for the first time. You can read more about the influence of Magnus’ story on Gemma McGregor over on our sister site, sagasandseascapes.com

I felt the ghosts of these ancient peoples all around me after working so intensively with Craig Sinclair over the last few weeks on new film for our first multimedia live performance of Sagas and Seascapes at the Scottish Storytelling Centre 15th-17th August. Book your tickets here. If you can’t make it to Edinburgh, we will also be screening it online on 18th August. Tickets are free here. The screening will be followed by a zoom Q and A with the composrs, artist Orla Stevens and myself.

Recital in Iceland

After briefly touching base, I’ll be travelling to Iceland for the first time since 2019 to perform in the Summer Concert Series at the beautiful Bláakirkjan in Seyđisfjörđur in the East Fjords on 6th July. I’m really looking forward to performing again with pianist Arnhildur Valgarđsdóttir in what I’m sure will be a special event. The last time I played in this gorgeous church with a wonderful acoustic was right at the start of my travels with Nordic Viola in 2016. Back then, I had no idea that Nordic Viola would grow into the project that it is now.

I’ve been enjoying repertoire new and old as I practise for the concert. I’ve been getting to know Jón Thorarinsson’s sonata, which was written originally for clarinet. It’s a delightful three-movement work, full of melody and some jaunty rhythms. Thorarinsson was actually born in Eiðar near Egilsstaðir, just up the road from Seyðisfjörður and a place I know very well!

On a much larger scale is Adrian Vernon Fish’s “Qaanaaq Sonata” inspired by the eponymous settlement in North Greenland. It’s a monumental work which challenges both players and moves from the starkness of the Arctic landscape, through a warm, lyrical melody ( melody is a real feature of Adrian’s music) and onto a wild and exhilarating dog-sled ride in a rather funky 13/8 rhythm. As I play, my thoughts will be with one of the driving forces in music education in Greenland, Per Rosing, who is currently in hospital in Denmark.

Whilst l’m in the East Fjords, I hope to have a few days’ holiday in Borgafjörđur Eystri on the north east coast and to catch up with friends in Egilsstađir.

I know many of you really enjoy following Nordic Viola’s trips to the Far North. It’s been a long hiatus and I hope you’ll enjoy hooking up with me and learning more about the music, cultures and landscapes of this most stunning and intriguing part of our beautiful planet. I can’t wait to travel North once more!

Crowdfunders, workshops and more!

Crowdfunder

Lots of news to tell you this month! First of all, the great news that our Crowdfunder campaign that we have been running to raise money towards our performances of Sagas and Seascapes at Edinburgh Festival Fringe has been very successful. Thank you so much to all the generous people who have contributed to that. It means we can support our musicians properly with rehearsal and travel costs. I have also been able to commission Orla to paint us a new piece in response to Eli Tausen á Lava‘s Søgnin um Kópakonuna í 10 Myndum (The Tale of the Sealwoman in 10 pictures). More of that in a minute!

If you haven’t contributed yet and would like to, then you can still do so by clicking here. Additional money over £2000 will be put towards a CD recording which we are aiming to produce in 2023. Alternatively, if crowdfunding is not for you, remember you can help us by visiting our shop. (Payment via PayPal, or use the contact form with your requirements and I can arrange payment by card).

We’ve also received some generous pledges from three businesses local to me. Working within the community is very important to me, whether that’s close to home or when I’m resident in other communities when performing in the Far North, so I’m delighted to be able to offer a free workshop for children in Dunblane as a way of saying thank you to these donors. I’ll introduce you to our sponsors and tell you more about the workshops once I’ve finalised details with everybody.

Raising the profile of music by women

I’m also delighted to say that the Ambache Charitable Trust have once again agreed to support us for Edinburgh. Like Ambache, one of our goals is to raise the profile of women composers and in Sagas and Seascapes, we will once again be featuring the work of Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris and Linda Buckley.

Workshop

On 5th March, Orla Stevens and I ran our first joint workshop, Tuning In To The Trossachs, in Aberfoyle in Central Scotland. We were blessed with a crisp, clear spring day and enjoyed the morning outside in the forests collecting sounds and making sketches. In the afternoon we gathered in the hall to draw our ideas together, making graphic scores from the sketches and making some sound sketches using found sounds, instruments and our voices. The emphasis was discovery, reflection and process rather than an end goal, but we are nonetheless pleased with the sounds we made, which capture the peace and beauty of where we were working. Have a listen here:

The Tale of the Sealwoman

Finally, a little more on that collaboration between Orla Stevens and Eli Tausen á Lava. Eli’s piece for flute and clarinet was a joint commission between the Spanish/Danish Aura Duo and Nordic Viola. Edinburgh will see its first live performance in the UK. The music is inspired by the legend of seals (selkies in Scotland) who change into human form on land. These legends are common throughout Norse and Celtic mythology, and you can find out more about them here.

Orla and Eli met for the first time via Zoom a couple of weeks ago. You can see some of their initial ideas in one of our crowdfunder updates below and also read more over on Orla’s website.

As you see, there is a lot going on with Nordic Viola just now. Our next key date will be the Made in Scotland Press Launch on 31st May so please do subscribe to keep up with all our news in the run-up to Edinburgh.

Tuning In To The Trossachs Workshop this Saturday!

It’s less than a week now until Orla Stevens and I host our Tuning In To The Trossachs Workshop in Aberfoyle in the beautiful Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park in Scotland on 5th March.

I thought I’d just take a bit of time to tell you a little bit more about what to expect on the day in case you’re not sure whether to sign up.

Orla and I have spent the last year or so working on Nordic Viola’s Sagas and Seascapes project. We’ve become increasingly interested in how music influences art and vice versa. We also share a love of the outdoors, of northern landscapes in particular and the cultures that surround them and we want to share this with you.

Both of us have worked experimentally and are great believers in being able to express ourselves freely without worrying about “getting it right.” Our workshop will be very much exploratory, allowing you to paint and make sound in the way that expresses your feelings about being outdoors. We’ll encourage you to try both art and music. Orla got me drawing again after a 40 year break, because she gave me permission to work quickly and just draw what I felt without fear of judgement. If I can, you can!

For me, music is about so much more than playing the notes right. Even if you’ve never played an instrument, there are sounds all around you. You can make recordings and perhaps shape them into a soundscape, you can find objects lying around that create sound and you can use your own voice. Equally, if you want to write a good honest lyrical melody inspired by your surroundings, then that’s great, too.

We’ll aim to produce a graphic score and a short piece of music/sound art by the end of our day.

Our workshop is open to anyone aged 14 or over. It is fully accessible as even the outdoor part of the day has level access and parking. Just let us know in advance via Eventbrite or the contact form here, and we’ll arrange to meet you.

Tickets in advance from Eventbrite. Just 8 places left as of Monday, so sign up quickly!

I’ll leave you with a couple of short video clips where we talk about our work together.

Workshops in February and March

I will be taking part in two workshops over the next month or so.

Soundwalk with The Bard of the Birds – 27th February 2pm – Online

The Soundwalk with the Bard of the Birds is part 2 of the Modern Chants project run by composer Ruta Vitkauskaite. Part 1 was an online concert in November where, following the many voices of the ancient goddess Cailleach, we ventured on a journey into the Gaelic and Old Norse imagery with poems by Dawn Wood. Music was by Ruta Vitkauskaite, Gemma McGregor, and Emily Doolittle and was inspired by winds, lochs, birds and bagpiping. You can hear some of the music in this playlist.

The Soundwalk with the Bard of the Birds will be hosted by Sound Scotland via Zoom and a downloadable podcast.

As spring emerges, The Bard of the Birds invites you to join her for a new music and storytelling experience where you will experience your surroundings in a new way. 

Whether you live in the city or countryside, your days are beginning to grow longer as spring emerges and nature finds her way through cracks in the walls and pavements, and through sunlight and birdsong. It can be easy to miss these details. 

The event starts on Zoom with an introduction from The Bard of the Birds. You will then be invited to take a walk (approx. 45 min) around your area. You don’t need to travel to any particular location. Indeed, if you feel more comfortable, you can even enjoy the soundwalk from inside your own home, looking through the window at the world outside.

On your walk, you will listen to a soundtrack featuring poems and stories by Dawn Wood, nature-inspired music by Ruta Vitkauskaite, Gemma McGregor, and Emily Doolittle, performed by clarinettist Joanna Nicholson and violist Katherine Wren with electronic sounds by Ellie Cherry and sound design by Chris Adams.

When you return from your walk, we will meet you back on Zoom and invite you to share your experiences with us.

The Soundwalk can be booked via Sound here.

Tuning In to the Trossachs

Many of you will have seen the beautiful work that Orla Stevens created for Nordic Viola’s Sagas and Seascapes project. Working together has opened up many new avenues for both our work and we’re really excited to share with you some of the new ways of working that we’ve discovered.

We will be leading an art and music workshop in Aberfoyle in the beautiful Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, close to our homes.

We will spend the morning outdoors watching and listening to the nature around us. We will collect sounds and make sketches as well as looking for objects that we can use to draw and to create sound.

In the afternoon we will split into 2 groups working in turn with Katherine and Orla at the Memorial Hall, Aberfoyle. Katherine will explore ways of sounding the landscape using instruments, our voices, found objects and recorded sound. We will learn about the elements that make up music and about how these help us to structure sound.

Orla will lead the drawing element of the workshop, exploring intuitive and expressive approaches to sounds and landscapes using both found objects and traditional art materials to create artworks and graphic scores.

At the end of the afternoon we will come together to explore how we can use graphic scores (a visual alternative to reading musical notation) to explore how shape, colour and composition can inspire sounds, and vice versa, finishing with an informal group performance.

Age Range: age 14-adult

Experience: No prior experience required, but if you play an instrument, please bring it along. Art materials will be provided.

Tickets are selling fast, so log on to Eventbrite here to book your place.